The US Navy deserves credit for taking a risk in procurement.
Secretary Ray Mabus has now all but confirmed that the US Navy will buy 12 HV-22 Ospreys from 2018 through 2020 to replace some of its aging C-2 Greyhound shore-to-ship cargo and passenger aircraft. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute promptly called the decision “a breakthrough” for Bell and Boeing. That’s true, but not everyone is happy. Tyler Rogoway of Foxtrot Alpha called the HV-22 decision a “stupid move.” A naval aviator friend of mine described it as “a case study in what is wrong with our military acquisition process.” Defense Industry Daily was “aghast,” but nonetheless summarized the case quite neatly:
The Osprey certainly didn’t compete on price or operating costs against remanufactured C-2s that use technologies from the derivative E-2D Hawkeye production line, while Lockheed Martin’s refurbished and modified C-3 Viking offered jet speeds and the unique ability to carry whole F135 jet engines inside. Boeing and Textron relied on the Navy valuing the V-22’s commonality, and ability to land on more of the carrier group’s ships, enough to pay a lot more for less internal capacity.
That’s the story, but that’s still trading off a lot of payload-at-range-for-cost. Besides, C-2s are still mostly common with E-2Ds, just as HV-22s will be with other V-22s. The real explanations here are the need for flexibility and operational experience.
Let me review what I wrote recently of the news from the Surface Navy Association meeting. Distributed lethality is the new enthusiasm for the surface fleet. The Navy is out to arm every ship it can with long-range anti-ship weapons, and to push them forward into the attack. As Vice Admiral Rowden put it so simply and eloquently, “if it floats, it fights.” And as noted naval analyst Bryan McGrath observed, “platform-agnostic” is just plain economical, for the number of American super-carriers is not and will not be increasing. The question, then, is how to keep those surface action groups resupplied once they’re beyond helicopter range from a super-carrier.
Indeed, Thompson’s Lexington colleague Dan Gouré laid out the issue in the September 2014 issue of Naval Institute Proceedings (“The Great COD Debate”), in which he closed by wondering
Which strategy will the Navy pursue: one that continues to emphasize the centrality of the aircraft carrier or one that shifts, albeit subtly, in favor of the smaller, more flexible, big-deck amphibs and dispersed land basing? There is a case for both approaches. Unfortunately, the Navy can only acquire one fleet of COD aircraft.
But this is where I differ. Only one? The Navy states its requirement for C-2s at 44 aircraft, but today only has 30. Those remaining aircraft must go soon, as they are falling apart. These are not like the B-52s, whose fuselages and wings have been wholly replaced over the decades. The C-2s have merely been “slepped”—put through a service life extension program (SLEP)—so the metal in their airframes is now highly fatigued. It’s a tribute to their air and ground crews that the Navy hasn’t had a serious mishap. The proposed HV-22s may be relatively expensive, but compared to an F-35C, just how expensive can another fixed-wing, turbo-prop cargo plane be?
In that context, buying 12 HV-22s sounds like an addition, not a replacement. Consider, then how might they supplement the fleet. The Navy has already decided that its new E-2Ds will go to the Pacific, and its older E-2Cs will concentrate in the Atlantic, where the threat is judged to be less. We might see an analogous split in the deployment of C-2s and HV-22s: the former concentrated in the Pacific, where the distances are great, and the latter more adequately covering the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. But expect also to see some of those new tilt-rotors across the Pacific, where the Chinese threat makes distributed lethality particularly important. Both C-2s and HV-22s would be important, for different types of resupply needs.
These first twelve on-board delivery tilt-rotors can thus be seen as an operational experiment. Even the choreography on super-carriers will not be immediately mastered. While the footprint of the V-22 on the flight deck and in the hangar is not bad, handling that plane may prove more challenging than handling the C-2. Folding the HV-22’s rotors and wings along the fuselage, and towing the aircraft into the boneyard or onto the elevator, may take more time than half-folding the C-2’s wings, and then letting the aircraft taxi under its own power to its appropriate spot. While Assistant Secretary Stackley was right to call the integration a near-zero risk, someone must still move actual planes on actual decks to learn-by-doing.
To paraphrase Stinger in Top Gun, even two minutes can be a long time in a naval battle. Figuring out how to get the details right—on both super-carriers and smaller ships—will take a lot of practice. If this doesn’t work out, the Marines can convert back to a troop-carrying role another 12 (M)V-22s, just as the Royal Navy and the RAF have been trading Merlins in recent years. But at a certain point, any military service must close the file on analyses of alternatives, and actually buy stuff to try stuff. The Navy deserves credit, not opprobrium, for taking this risk.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.